Santa Paula Times

Chief Steve MacKinnon

Santa Paula Police Chief placed on administrative leave

April 20, 2012
Groundswell of support for Chief MacKinnon in wake of administrative leave
Santa Paula News

A groundswell of support from a disgruntled community continues to grow for Police Chief Steve MacKinnon, who was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday morning while awaiting the results of an unspecified investigation that has been ongoing for months.

The Santa Paula Police Officers Association issued a brief statement Wednesday evening noting their support of their chief and asking the public not to rush to judgment.

“I am hopeful this matter will eventually be brought to a quick conclusion,” stated MacKinnon, who has led the SPPD since November 16, 2005.

MacKinnon was hired after a nationwide search; he replaced Bob Gonzales who had been with the department for 33 years when he retired in September 2005. Gonzales is now a city councilman and the present mayor.

MacKinnon, a native of Michigan primarily raised in Connecticut, has been credited with strengthening the department, launched the Explorers program and beefed up and expanded the Reserve Offices facet of the SPPD.

His efforts led to widespread respect from the community as well as the Ventura County law enforcement community.

City Manager Jaime Fontes said Tuesday the action is a personnel matter that at this time is confidential.

“This is an internal matter and I can’t go into that,” said Fontes. “Until it goes through it’s course, while it goes on, it’s just the status of it.”

He added that Senior Sgt. Ishmael Cordero is the acting police chief while the investigation is taking place.

In spite of falling crime rates, a bump in morale and new respect accorded the department there had been signs of tension in recent years between the chief and several members of the city council. 

After several attempts MacKinnon garnered majority support for the SPPD to join a prestigious program - CALEA - to become nationally certified; an officer inspired change in uniform color and redesigned patch brought sharp comment and accusations that an attempt had been made to change the city seal and a ticket issued to the child of a councilmember - although never publicly acknowledged - brought on a detailed report on specific ticketing policies and procedures. 

Gonzales said “The investigation by the city manager’s office does not involve me,” and he said there has been no tension with MacKinnon.

“I wouldn’t say tension, I would say difference of opinion. But I have said publicly he’s the chief and he can do with his department,” as he wishes.

Another former SPPD Officer, Rick Cook also serves on the council with Ralph Fernandez, Fred Robinson and Jim Tovias.

Gonzales said he has “no idea” when the investigation would be concluded, as “Again, that is the city manager’s thing... when it comes to a head I’m sure then,” that, depending on the outcome, the process would be launched involving the Police Officer Bill of Rights and its protocols.

In recent months several interviews with MacKinnon about federally required crime statistics addressed the dwindling resources of the SPPD and its impacts on services and officer initiated activity.

Although the city had experienced numerous high profile cutbacks due to financial shortfalls, the public was generally unaware that the SPPD had also suffered sharp losses.

MacKinnon noted in the crime stats interview that through attrition the SPPD had lost about one-third of sworn officers, its force down from 34 officers employed two years ago to only the present 26. The department has also lost two of three Community Service Officers and much support staff. 

Both lieutenants retired and were not replaced leaving no second in command.

MacKinnon is also an active community member: he is Chairman of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara Valley and the annual Moonlight at the Ranch celebrations that raise money distributed by the Santa Paula Police & Fire Foundation to supplement equipment and other public safety needs. He is a Santa Paula Theater Center Board Director, appeared in annual Ghost Walks and he helped to launch the Singular Santa Paula program, of which he is senior producer. MacKinnon also has worked closely on a professional level with organizers of major events and festivals while also being a much called upon volunteer for various community fundraisers ranging from the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula to Santa Clara Valley Hospice.

In addition, MacKinnon is a constant presence including often-overlooked graduations of countywide Reserve Officer and Explorers; more than one SPPD Reserve Officer in interviews noted they joined  the department after he was the keynote speaker at ceremonies marking the end of their formal training.

Although city officials are mum on the investigation, which reportedly actually started in January, the community has been outspoken in their support of the chief even prior to his being placed on administrative leave.

Perhaps in reaction to rumors emerging that the chief might be under fire, in March a Certificate of Appreciation approved by more than 150 community members was read at the Good Morning Santa Paula chamber breakfast; later the certificate and email comments from supporters was given to council members.

The certificate noted MacKinnon’s “exemplary community service” and “great leadership” of the police department where he is accorded the respect of officers. 

In addition, “... he is a tireless advocate for the community and volunteers his time, energy and considerable talent to benefit a number of organizations in Santa Paula.”

The certificate also noted that MacKinnon “provides a great image for the City of Santa Paula.”

Fontes characterized the missive as “more of an email card, a well-deserved acknowledgement of interactions with the individuals involved,” in showing support, while Gonzales noted, “He received an award from the chamber for the work he does,” unrelated to the department but rather “due to his obvious support of their interests.”

Former Mayor Mary Ann Krause, president of the SPTC Board of Directors, said she was interviewed by the investigator and questioned about the chief’s use of a city vehicle. 

She believes the “Administrative leave is about the Chief’s personal use of a city car, a special benefit granted to him in his employment agreement that MacKinnon uses.” 

MacKinnon was not accorded the $350 monthly car allowance granted to department heads at the time of his hire.

Krause noted, “If the city manager or city council no longer wishes Chief MacKinnon to use a city car for personal use, they could change the employment agreement without much fanfare; they needn’t have drug the name and reputation of our capable and caring police chief through the mud. It reflects very badly on both our city manager and our city council that they have handled this situation with so little tact and respect, not at all what I would expect.”

According to several anonymous sources the months-long investigation has widened encompassing alleged breaches of what could be considered “insignificant” policy issues.

Santa Paula Police personnel initially learned of MacKinnon’s administrative leave through radio broadcasts and online newspaper reports. All on duty and off duty personnel were called into a special - and brief - meeting at City Hall Tuesday afternoon where Fontes told them the action had been taken and that Cordero was acting chief.

The Santa Paula Police Officers Association issued a statement Wednesday evening that read, “On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, the City of Santa Paula notified the Santa Paula Police Officers’ Association that Police Chief Stephen MacKinnon was placed on paid administrative leave due to an investigation that has been ‘ongoing for several months’. To date, the City has not notified the Santa Paula Police Officers’ Association of any wrongdoing by Police Chief Stephen MacKinnon.

The members of the Santa Paula Police Officers’ Association support Chief MacKinnon. We ask the members of the public to let the investigation take its course, and to withhold any negative inferences or rush to judgment until all the facts are known.

As the association that represents all Santa Paula Police Officers, we want to assure the community that in Chief MacKinnon’s absence, we will continue to provide the highest levels of service to keep safe the citizens and visitors of the Santa Paula community.

Sincerely, SPPOA Board of Directors”

MacKinnon said Wednesday he could not comment on the situation, noting “Since early January when I was notified of this investigation I was directed not to talk about the details with anyone. More than three months later I have been placed on Administrative Leave and must continue to refrain from comment. I just want to say I have sincerely appreciated the outpouring of support and kind thoughts I have received since my departure. I am hopeful this matter will eventually be brought to a quick conclusion.”

Before coming to Santa Paula, MacKinnon served as chief of police of three other agencies. Immediately before joining Santa Paula he served on the United Nation’s International Policing Task Force helping to develop professional police agencies in Haiti and Kosovo.

He began his career working as a patrol officer in Connecticut and later worked in Exeter and Salem, N.H., and in Avondale, Ariz.

MacKinnon graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He also is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.